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T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life Paperback – December, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Remaining in awe of Eliot's literary greatness, Gordon (A Private Life of Henry James) has rewritten her slim but influential Eliot's Early Years (1977) and her somewhat overlapping Eliot's New Life (1988) into a new biography that concedes the man's serious flaws. Yet Gordon finds "no adequate explanation" for the fact that a writer "of his sensibilities" was an anti-Semite, revelations of which caused a stir in the mid-'90s, and a misogynist (excepting toward his worshipful second wife, who cosseted him in his last, failing years). Although Eliot set himself up as a lofty moral and spiritual authority, Gordon reluctantly acknowledges that he is an "idol... made in part from certain waste products of his century." Gordon sees Eliot struggling constantly with his "two almost antithetical selves," and as "a loner in the American tradition of cranky loners." While publication of his early letters and suppressed early verse has now made it possible for quotations to replace paraphrase, crucial correspondences remains under embargo. Eliot, Gordon concludes, consciously pared down his experiences to reflect the "life of a man of genius," whatever the impact upon his intimates. "To be a genius does not preclude common faults," Gordon writes, but she forcefully demonstrates Eliot's faults to be uncommon, a fact that limits her sympathies and almost jeopardizes her efforts at presenting a balanced view. Still, Gordon's book is the most authoritative life of Eliot thus far, and is certain to spark new controversies. 41 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Though the century's most influential English-language poet championed the impersonality of art, British literary biographer Gordon (The Private Life of Henry James) demonstrates that Eliot greatly influenced works that are far more personal than traditionally believed. In Eliot, Gordon delineates a dual personality struggling with the flaws in his nature, a devout Christian who nonetheless could be anti-Semitic and misogynistic. The present volume combines material from Gordon's previous award-winning works, Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life, with extensive additional research. Subjects covered in depth include Eliot's complex relationships with women and the American-ness of his work despite his near-obsession with things British. Eliot scholarship has been hampered by the poet's ban on any official biography; the best previous work was Peter Ackroyd's T.S. Eliot: A Life (LJ 11/15/84). Gordon's superb study is thoroughly researched and documented. Of particular interest to scholars is her lengthy section on sources, with specifics on accessing unpublished items. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.
-ADenise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 752 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (December 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393320930
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393320930
  • ASIN: 0393320936
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.4 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #880,967 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 41 people found the following review helpful By sjm4175@unix.tamu.edu on February 9, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book combines two earlier biographies of T. S. Eliot by Gordon, with the inclusion of materials that had come to light since their publication (letters, early poems, and materials relating to Eliot's relationship with his wife). Gordon's book is full of fascinating details about Eliot--an intensely private man, who attempted to hide much of his life from the public view.
Gordon's interpretation of Eliot's poems is what might be called mystical/autobiographical. The emphasis on Eliot's conversion and self-creation (from her first biographies) is still here, but a great deal more is also here about Eliot's marital problems, his relationships with women, and his opinions about minorities. The result is much more in keeping with contemporary biographical focus: Eliot is presented as a self-conflicted and flawed individual--a real man, with real problems, and a difficult life, striving for sainthood, and falling short. Gordon's respect for Eliot keeps it gossipy, but not scandal-mongering.
The only flaw in Gordon's presentation and interpretations seem to be her heavy focus on Eliot's relationship with Emily Hale. Eliot kept up a correspondence with Miss Hale, and possibly harbored some romantic intentions towards her intermittantly. In Gordon's account, this relationship is the touchstone for decoding much of Eliot's poetry. Like those interpretations that seek a homosexual relationship (with Verdenal or someone else) as the real center of Eliot's poetry, I find Gordon's reading occasionally reductive. However, this biography presents much more of the puzzle that is T. S. Eliot, and is a must-read for those interested in the intersections between his life and work.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Jose Silva Anguita on July 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
T.S.Eliot, during his lifetime, refused to allow anyone to write an official biography. He was an intensely reserved and private individual. And he was especially secretive about his thirty-year friendship with Emily Hale, who believed that he loved her and would eventually marry her. The friendship survived Eliot's refusal to marry Emily when his first wife, Vivienne, died in 1947. But he broke off all ties with her in 1956 when she gave her letters from him to Princeton University Library. He required them to be sealed until fifty years after the death of the survivor (they become available in 2019), and it is thought that, at the same time, he destroyed all the letters Emily had written to him. Few people knew about this until Lyndall Gordon began her research into Eliot's life.
Others who believed themselves to be close friends, like Mary Trevelyan and John Hayward, his "two closest friends from the late forties to the mid-fifties", also came to realise how little they really knew Eliot. Yet, Lyndall Gordon, using Eliot's poetry and plays as her guide and consulting as many primary sources as she could discover, has done a superb job of writing a biography of this secretive, difficult, imperfect and driven man.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
Perhaps Eliot was wise in his distrust of biographers. Perhaps he knew his true essence could not be known by someone who did not know him personally. I'm in agreement that this work is more a critique of Eliot's work across his lifetime than an open window into his life. Gordon becomes most descriptive while discussing his conversion, his philosophy and religious quest. This is mingled with her tendency to paint him as a depressed, detached character unable to commit to his lifelong love interest due to his rigidity. In this way the work is also critique of the person and character of T.S. Eliot. If academically accurate, this book, is rather dry in it's writing style. It left me wanting something richer and deeper still about what it meant to live the life of T.S. Eliot. This work may be brilliant but seemed plodding to me.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Fred Campbell on December 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After reading the trite Eliot biography written by Peter Ackroyd, a man who specializes in biography and not thinking (apparently), I thought all hope lost for an accurate examination of Eliot's life and poetry. Lyndall Gordon's book has restored my faith in biographers. Eliot, himself, was a complex man, and taking on the task of his biography seems as complex as the man and as intimidating as one might assume. Gordon pursues the historical Eliot and the poetic Eliot, finally yielding the necessary blend of biography and poetry required by the life of any moder poet, and certainly more of Eliot than any other. Gordon sees the same need for discussing poetry and biography that Yeats speaks of. This book is for those in need of something much more substantial that the usual tabloid fodder biographers seem intent on producing these days. In it, Eliot comes to life physically, intellectually, and spiritually. A truly romantic effort.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By cxlxmx on May 1, 2010
Format: Paperback
I generally enjoy biography and autobiography, but not Gordon's treatment of Eliot. Except in the case that a subject's life has been covered in minute detail times previously, and the biographer is trying to show something new and different, the first responsibility of the biographer is to tell the story of the subject's life. The biographer should demonstrate, like a good historian, not tell, like a dinner guest. If there is interpretation to be done, it should be through the details included and the structure of the book. With Gordon, everything is wrong. She tells and speculates, and uses detail and anecdote as ornaments for her thoughts and writing. I quote here a short passage from the book, picked by opening the book at random:

"Viviene's moods and nervous states must have given her husband ample cause for self-pity, but I think their marriage was also blighted by something else, something in Eliot, that he half-recognised as the underlying cause of their troubles. What exactly it was, one can only conjecture from other fragmentary remarks in his poems... He seemed to suffer from an inability to empathise with suffering ouside his own experience. In a strange guilty poem he published..."

Seven-hundred pages of this! Arrgh!!

THere are two ways a biography gets written like this: (1) the biographer does not have a good grasp of the subject; (2) the biographer is really more interested in her own opinions than in the subject's life. In this case, I could believe either. Anyhow, definitely not recommended.
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